This photo was taken sometime in the mid 1920s at the train station in Sussex, New Brunswick. The two people are Millie Winger and Henry Schneider. Henry is a young dairy farmer. Millie is the eldest of five daughters; her father is a minister. She is a piano player, and there has been some talk about her playing professionally. But she’s marrying Henry and she’s going to be a farmer’s wife.
Actually, I don’t know if this photo was taken before or after their marriage. All I really know is that Millie, my grandmother, is wearing a skunk-skin fur coat. That’s what that is. And Henry, my grandfather, is rocking a pair of faded overalls under a worn-looking wool coat. It’s the middle of a workday for him, but it’s the start or the end of some journey for her. They are pausing in the cold, bright, Canadian light to have their picture made in front of what looks like a new, or at least a nice, car.
It’s a portrait of their love. They are quite obviously delighted with each other. And the picture is also a portrait of their idea of their future. Both Millie and Henry were born in Europe, in the 19th century. But now it’s 1920-something, they’re in the New World. Henry has a car, they are at the train station, and Millie . . . in her skunk coat, her hair bobbed, those glasses, that cloche hat . . . she’s going places. She is a modern girl.
He’s not such a modern boy. He’s a farmer, and he’s dressed for the same labor his ancestors have done for hundreds of years. He’s comfortable in that role, at home. You can see his comfort in his body. Lounging there, hand in his pocket. But look closely at the shadow under his cap. Peer into that dark, and you’ll see . . . he’s totally besotted with her. With this future-oriented creature. He likes her just the way she is. She delights him.
He’s quite a lot better looking than she is. To be honest, she’s a frump, in spite of the skunk coat and the cloche. She’s fundamentally dumpy. He likes that about her, too. Likes that she makes a whole lot out of a little, likes that she overdoes it. Look again at the look on his face. He enjoys her. Not just in this moment, but in her essence. He likes to sit back and watch her go.
She’s laughing, clutching that purse . . . a little stiff, a lot joyous. She’s a plump dynamo. It’s funny. His emotions are perfectly legible in spite of the shadow over his face. But we can’t really tell what she’s thinking, what she likes or doesn’t like. That’s the condition of those who push the future forward, though. They don’t know what they want, except that whatever it is, they want more. It’s why they’re fun when they’re young. It’s also why they often stop being fun when they get older.
But here she’s young. Check out this picture of her, spinning along in a contraption of some kind, with her stockings showing. It’s the decade of her youth, and she’s enjoying it.
Of course we know what’s coming. Depression. War. And I know the details of how those vast, global convulsions touched Millie and Henry, first on the farm in Wisconsin and then on the farm in California, where they moved in 1946. I know that her ambition for more changed its shape when she had children. I know how that searing ambition radically shaped the course of my father’s life.
Millie has been gone for forty years, Henry for a few years longer. I never met him, and I have no memory of her, although apparently we got along famously and she used to get down on her hands and knees and play “cow” with me in the flooded front yard of the California farm. Here we are. The skunk coat is long gone, but don't worry. That’s a big old wig she’s wearing. And silver cat's eye glasses.
About eight years ago I was teaching some novel – I don’t remember which one – and there was something in it about how the sins of our ancestors descend to curse the present generation (sounds like tons of novels, right?). Anyway, we were talking about the burdens of the past, and a student raised her hand. I remember this as clearly as if it were yesterday. I called on her, and she said “I really can’t relate, because none of my ancestors ever did anything bad.” I think my mouth hung open. I know I didn’t say anything right away, because another student said, “What do you mean, like, none of your ancestors, all the way back to Lucy?” And this student said, with perfect confidence, “That’s right.”
That’s a lot of people to have never done anything bad.
I have a few really unsavory ancestors, ancestors whose sins stain the pages of history. And quite a lot of ancestors whose sins were quieter. Hateful people. Bitter people. So does everyone, of course, though I suppose it’s possible that my student really was the product of hundreds of generations of pure and virtuous behavior. Who am I to say? I know I would find it stressful to be the beloved child of hundreds of generations of beloved children. How scary! What if you are the one who falls!
Millie and Henry made mistakes, of course. Big ones. But I think they might be my best shot at what my student might have deemed “good” ancestors. Nice, hardworking people. The salt of the earth.
That’s why I love this photo. That crazy skunk coat on Millie. That shadowy amusement on Henry’s face. The sexy way his body bends toward her. That’s vanity and lust right there. Beautiful, joyful vanity and lust. At least at this moment, Henry and Millie aren’t participating in a trans-historical project of virtuous reproduction. They are enjoying themselves, enjoying their moment. Having fun.